How to start? Much about this film you’ll already know … so, how to start?
The film begins by sweeping from distance into close-up on a gang of convicts manually hauling a ship into dock. Waves break and crash, an orchestral score swells and male voices break into the haunting chorus of ‘Look Down’. It’s an opening which sets the movie up appropriately. Transition from stage to screen is tackled through close-up and long-shot, wisely tending to avoid the more theatrical mid-shot. In turn this means that the artificiality of group songs on stage is largely circumvented; instead the camera homes in on individuals. We meet the chorus, but the chorus has an identity, a face. The film also achieves what the stage show only occasionally manages – there is real suffering on display here. Be it the poor, the prisoner or the persecuted, I can’t remember feeling suffering and poverty quite so acutely in many other films.
The film’s portrayal of suffering points out another strength – which for some will be a weakness. It’s is a film which makes no concessions to the casual viewer. If you don’t like musicals, this is unlikely to win you over. The artifice of a fully sung musical is embraced rather than edged around; whilst some musicals purists have baulked at this, I like that fact that director Tom Hopper (generally) decided to stick with screen actors. Acting for stage and acting for screen are two very different disciplines; of course there’s cross-over but being good at one doesn’t necessarily lead to being good at the other. Sticking with actors who understand how to act in close-up, who understand the breadth of facial acting which the screen requires and is largely unnecessary on stage lends intimacy and an intense brand of drama. The result is that some songs become fleetingly conversational or prayerful in tone, which is almost impossible in a theatrical setting where there’s a large auditorium to be filled. Russell Crowe, as the guilt-laden Javert has come in for most criticism. Singing may not be his strength, but physical acting is – so he simultaneously needs to cut himself loose as well as reign himself in. This is perfect for a character who, until late in the film, is in constant denial at his own conflicted nature. He was in some ways a counter-intuitive choice for such a key musical role, but for me it’s a choice that works.
Much has been and will be said about the role of grace in the story and the film. I’m not going to rehash here what others have said. The film is grace and emotion-soaked. Like the sea in the opening scene, waves of emotion and grace keep crashing and crashing over you. It took me several hours to achieve emotional equilibrium after seeing this – it’s exhausting and draining in all the ways it should be. Many have highlighted Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine. Rightly so. She takes about 20 minutes of screen time and gives us one of the most memorable and harrowing descents into near-oblivion as you’re likely to see. Her take on the key song ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is almost unwatchable in its brilliance, achieving all the things on the screen you can’t do onstage. At times it’s almost a half-whispered conversation; the transitions to louder passages carrying all the more power for it. Shot entirely in close-up it’s reminiscent and probably inspired by one of pop’s greatest vocal performances. Fantine’s story-line – from co-worker bullying, towards a traumatic descent into poverty and prostitution, culminating in a moment of grace and death-bed provision is the film’s highlight. It’s deeply disturbing, utterly entrancing and unforgettable.
There are many other strengths making this film such an all-engulfing experience. Those are well documented; allow it to linger, however, in your thoughts as well as your emotions for a couple of days and a few weaknesses do emerge – and these are all as much faults of the source as this reading of it. The first is that whilst so much effort is made to give the story a definitively French context, it seems odd to leave so many of the poorer characters – especially Gavroche – with neo-cockney accents. At moments you half expect them to break into a number from Oliver. Another problem is the comic relief of the Thenardiers – the inkeeper and his wife. I understand this story needs some comic oxygen otherwise it would be suffocatingly grim, and these characters are for many reasons the logical ones to give it. There’s still something troubling in being asked to laugh at the rouge-ish antics of a couple who have effectively abused a child by way of neglect.
The biggest problem for me – and others – is in the way the story in this form (on stage and screen) portrays women. The simple fact is that we have no women here in their own right – they are all reacting to, under the control of or subservient to men. There are two possible responses here. Either it’s an accurate portrayal of the time, or it’s a problem. For me it’s a problem I can’t escape. How does one of the show’s foundational songs go? “Do you hear the people sing…“. That’s right. What comes next? “Singing a song of angry MEN“. So the song of the people is a song of the men? I understand the linguistic and poetic issues at work; it’s still a lazy and bizarre lyrical choice. The only woman we see on the barricades is one who has disguised herself as a man; the women’s suffering in the uprising is otherwise reduced to washing blood from the cobbles, cleaning up after men singing a song which in the film version is, I’m sure, at least 2 verses shorter than on stage. Hugo himself saw the liberation of women as one of the key social issues of the 19th century; in the story we get in the musical form (I’d need to revisit the book to be sure of the tone of the original text) the women are all reactive too, submissive to and in service of men. Women are wives, lovers (requited and unrequited), prostitutes and daughters – all of whom need to be rescued.
Maybe this is a portrait of the times. It probably is. If, though, it’s possible to produce a feminist production of Shakespeare then surely it wouldn’t be so much of a stretch here? Anne Hathaway’s character is probably the strongest woman on show – despite circumstances, always actively trying to take a choice of her own will as best she can, no matter how terrible the options. Is she the feminist flag-bearer here? Maybe. The fact a man rescues her either undermines that or points up the crisis she faced. Construct your own answer. It’s a question Hugo would want us ask, I suspect.
In the end emotion soaked grace wins. It’s a draining, brilliant and exhaustive achievement. It deserves to be seen widely and celebrated. Grace would suggest we see past some of the criticisms, which are inherent in the source as much as in the film itself. It’s as good a film as we could hope under the circumstances.
Can grace ask hard questions and still be grace? Yes, because only grace earns the right to truly do so from a pure heart. Love the film, maybe, but don’t let waves of grace drown out the questions. Instead, let it baptise them.
I rated this film 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com